Middle East


The Usual Suspects

Not long after the smoke cleared from the Beirut car bomb that killed former Lebanese Christian warlord Elie Hobeika on Jan. 24, Lebanese and Arab commentators were quick to blame Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the hit. It was Hobeika and his Israel-backed Lebanese militia who were fingered by an Israeli commission of inquiry for carrying out the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut. With Hobeika apparently poised to testify before a Belgian court about Sharon’s role in the massacre, Hobeika’s assassination raised some eyebrows, to say the least.

Al-Quds al-Arabi observed (Jan. 25) that Hobeika’s bloody demise had been long in coming: “[This] closes an important page in the Lebanese civil war, but also opens a new one...regarding who was behind the...operation.” Most Lebanese and Arab pundits agree that Hobeika had many enemies—among them Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians—but none seemed more suspect than Israel, given the timing. “Who benefits from this crime?” asked Joseph Samaha of Al-Safir (Jan. 25).“This is the obvious question to raise after the assassination. And the equally obvious answer is: Ariel Sharon and consequently the Israeli state.” According to Samaha, the assassination cannot be explained within the context of internal Lebanese politics in spite of Hobeika’s dubious past. The “remarkable coincidence” between the assassination and the Belgian prosecution and the way in which Sharon so clearly benefits from Hobeika’s disappearance makes Sharon “suspect number one.”

In its lead editorial, Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Jan. 25) concurred that Lebanese and other observers were pointing blame in the direction of Israel. After all, Israel “did not hide its strong annoyance at Hobeika’s willingness to unveil many details before the Belgian court.” Israel is the primary beneficiary of Hobeika’s silencing, the paper claimed. For commentators like Al-Sharq al-Awsat’s Iyad Abu Shaqra (Jan. 25), Israel’s charge that Syria was involved in the assassination is “unlikely,” since no advantage was to be gained by Syria. But perhaps there were others who had different motives.

Writing in The Daily Star (Jan. 25), columnist Michael Young opined that Sharon certainly had a stake in killing Hobeika, but there were doubts that Hobeika actually intended to testify in the first place. “Others had the same reason as the Israelis for fretting about Hobeika,” he surmised, adding that his testimony in Belgium might have exposed others for their misdeeds. “Hobeika’s indictment in Belgium would have reflected badly on those who collected him in 1986, after his ouster from East Beirut,” he added in apparent reference to Syria.

A similar point was made by Zoheir Qusaibati in Al-Hayat (Jan. 27), saying that one can point fingers in the direction of Sharon as well as others in Lebanon who are afraid of “revealing secrets of another kind.”

It is unclear whether the full truth of Sabra and Shatila will ever emerge and whether Hobeika’s death will benefit Sharon in the court proceedings in Belgium. As a result of the killing, however, The Daily Star noted that Hobeika once told its editors he made tapes of his own testimony regarding the massacres and entrusted them to his lawyers—testimony he said that would implicate Sharon even more in the massacres than is widely believed. If the tapes ever emerge, questions will certainly remain as to whether Hobeika’s word is one that can be trusted.